Spring 2007
ISSN 1477-1241

Employability and the International Agenda

The case for a university-wide language strategy

The context

We live in a global society in which trans-national collaboration is a way of life creating a need for people with language skills in the professions, the world of business, finance and the leisure industry1. At the same time languages ceased to be mandatory in schools at Key Stage 4 from 2004 with a consequent drop in take-up of languages with negative repercussions not only in terms of the employability of British students at all levels but also, as noted by the President of the British Academy, in terms of the future reputation of UK scholarship:

We are deeply concerned about the effect that a decline in language learning is having upon UK scholarship - and not just in language based subjects. It is already possible to see the negative consequences of this trend at doctoral level, and above. Increasingly, research projects undertaken by UK PhD students in the humanities and social sciences do not have an international dimension, because students do not have the language skills, or the time to acquire them, with the risk that UK research will be increasingly insular in outlook2.

Britain now faces a skills deficit in the area of languages which is so serious that languages have been officially designated as a ‘vulnerable subject of national strategic importance’. The Government has responded to the situation by commissioning Lord Dearing to write a review of the situation and by investing £4.5 million through HEFCE to address the problem. The British Academy has responded to the perceived threat to the reputation of UK scholarship by suggesting that a language should be a compulsory entry requirement for university programmes,3 a measure which already exists in Europe and has already been taken by UCL in the UK4. The review reports that an average six meetings per day are cancelled in Brussels through lack of English speaking interpreters, and European investors complain that they have to source comparably qualified engineers from their home markets because UK engineers have insufficiently developed language skills (Languages Review, 2006: 22). The same report notes that the National Health Service has referred to its ‘growing future need to be able to recruit staff domiciled in the UK who are proficient in the languages of immigrant communities’ and it has been observed that, ‘other employers providing public services have a similar need’ (2006: 22). Why is this significant to anyone other than linguists? It is significant because undergraduates of all disciplines will have a substantial advantage in terms of their future employability if they are able to study a language as part of their undergraduate programme.


Languages and employability

In 2006 the British Council warned that, ‘monoglot English graduates face a bleak economic future, as qualified youngsters from other countries are proving to have a competitive edge over their British counterparts in global companies and organisations’ (Languages Review, 2006: 20). There is an important opportunity here for MMU to enhance the employability skills of all undergraduates by providing an elective slot in all programmes to enable students to study a language as part of their undergraduate programme. In the MMU Strategic Plan we state that we aim to ‘produce employable graduates, who are well equipped to respond to the demands of their chosen profession or vocational careers, that have the capacity for responsible citizenship’5. We also aim ‘to increase our graduate employment and contribute to the graduate retention rate in the North-West’ (MMU Strategic Plan 2003-2010). To this end, the MMU Framework for Career Management and Development stipulates that, ‘arrangements for taught programmes will ensure that … every opportunity is taken to ensure that students of the University are well prepared to achieve their potential in industry, commerce and the wider community’6. In other words, employability is a key issue for all undergraduate programmes in this university and there is clear evidence that languages can make an important contribution to that agenda.

 

Languages and Commerce

Vicki Treadell, former Director of the North West branch of UK Trade and Investment, has noted that one of the greatest problems facing companies in the North West is the lack of employees with language skills7. Language skills audits commissioned by several Regional Development Agencies reveal that 45% of international businesses experience language and cultural issues as barriers to international business (Languages for all 2002:13). The same audits conclude that, ‘although about 60% of UK companies use at least one foreign language in their business and 10% use five languages or more, an alarming 20% of UK companies believe they have lost business because of lack of language or cultural skills’ (2002: 33). A survey of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) showed that 48% of members were dissatisfied with the foreign language skills among undergraduates (Languages Review, 2006: 20) and the Chairman of the Institute of Export noted that, ‘We need to raise our game in languages (…) if we are to compete in an increasingly globalised economy … it is vital that British firms do not lose out because of poor language skills’ (Languages Review, 2006: 20).

English is not enough

English is simply not enough in a market place in which 60% of British trade is with countries where English is not the first language; to quote the old adage, you can buy in your own language but, to be successful, you must sell in the language of your customer. Therefore, companies are constantly looking for personnel with technical or professional skills, plus at least one foreign language. Often their only option is to recruit European nationals who are proficient in English and have two or three languages in comparison with UK graduates who often leave university with virtually no language skills at all8. Whilst he was the Minister for Education Charles Clarke observed that, ‘We can no longer continue to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the importance of language learning.’9 The Languages for All report also concluded that, ‘In the society of the 21st century, language competence and inter-cultural understanding are not optional extras, they are an essential part of being a citizen’ (2002: 5). The dream of mobility of employment is thus in danger unless we do something to change the way we approach this issue (Nuffield, 2000:6)10.

The evidence supporting the contention that languages improve student employability is irrefutable:

Languages graduates score high on employability compared to graduates of other disciplines and studying languages alongside another degree subject can also enhance job prospects. Language graduates have lower unemployment rates (5.8%) than a number of other subject areas, including engineering, technology (8%), computing (11.9%) and media studies (10.8%). … Businesses need people with language skills. Language skills audits commissioned by a number of regional development agencies over 2000-2001 have indicated that 45% of international businesses surveyed experience language and cultural issues as barriers to international business. Languages for all (2002:13)

Within this context, one of the most significant contributions we can make to the local regional economy is to provide undergraduates with an opportunity to study a language alongside their main subject. This is not to suggest that languages should be compulsory but it is to suggest that students should have an element of choice on this issue. Programme teams could provide valuable opportunities for their students by including an elective slot at each stage of their programmes to enable those students who wish to study a language to do so. If we are serious about improving the employability of our students and equipping them for the global markets of the 21st Century, we need to offer them the possibility of developing their language skills at all stages of their degree programme. This will take us one step closer to ‘meeting the needs of the individual and of the industrial, commercial, professional and wider communities’ and producing, ‘employable graduates, who are well equipped to respond to the demands of their chosen profession or vocational careers, that have the capacity for responsible citizenship’ in accordance with the MMU Strategic Plan.

Mobility in Higher Education

In our increasingly global society, mobility is a way of life. It is also a part of academic life for staff and students at an undergraduate and a postgraduate level through schemes such as SOCRATES, LEONARDO and ERASMUS MUNDUS. Such schemes are supported by the European Union as part of a strategy to enhance the profile of the European Higher Educational Area. More recently there has been an increase in the number of opportunities for student placements outside Europe, particularly in China and Japan. Equally, we are all aware of the changing nature of the student body with increasing numbers of international students providing us with excellent opportunities to incorporate alternative perspectives into classroom discussions or departmental research seminars and to develop more international research links.

In order to bring out the best in our international students MMU now provides academic support and English Language classes through our English Language Support for International Students (ELSIS) and through the various initiatives run by the International Office. We provide CPD modules for academic staff on how to approach the teaching of modules to students from various cultural backgrounds. The other side of the coin, of course, is to enable UK students and staff to enjoy the benefits of the various mobility schemes throughout Europe and beyond. The key to this must lie in the provision of the opportunity to study a language in order to be able to make the most of such opportunities.

 

Erasmus exchanges

MMU has signed up to the ERASMUS University Charter, establishing 103 links within Europe thus opening up many exciting opportunities for academic staff and students. The ERASMUS University Charter stipulates that we must ‘ensure support for ERASMUS Trans-national Projects by providing the necessary institutional support for staff engaged in approved Trans­national Projects’ and, in particular, we should provide, ‘the necessary linguistic preparation to mobile individuals.’11 However, many students undertaking ERASMUS exchanges as part of their undergraduate programme do not undertake formal language study in preparation for their placement, even though the Erasmus Charter requires us to provide, ‘the necessary linguistic preparation’; this denies our students the possibility of real cultural integration during their time abroad.

Is it enough to argue that our students can attend lectures in English (which is undeniably true in some cases as European Universities cater for the linguistic deficiencies of Anglophone students)? Is this not to miss the point of the ERASMUS Scheme and to continue to tacitly condone the stereotype of the British who are incapable of learning a foreign language when we should be working to move away from this mindset? In so doing, are we not denying our students an obvious advantage in terms of their future employability? This is a national problem which was highlighted in the Languages Review commissioned by the British Government to investigate the crisis:

Because they lack the language skills, too many British undergraduates are missing the opportunity to gain that enrichment offered by the Community funded Erasmus programme … They have lost out in comparison with other Europeans. (2006: 20)

If students are not given an opportunity to study a language, they will lack the confidence to undertake a European placement; even if they do undertake one, they are less able to benefit from the experience of living abroad.


 

Languages and Key Skills

In 2003 the President of the European Language Council, Wolfgang Mackiewicz, noted in a report on Language Policy at European level that:

Multilingual competence, high levels of communicative competence in a number of languages, and language learning ability are not just essential learning outcomes of specialist programmes, they are becoming (….) crucial aspects of any European graduate’s employability, citizenship and personal development. This is why universities should provide students, regardless of their field of specialisation, with opportunities for improving their knowledge of languages, for learning new languages (….) for taking a number of credits in languages. (….) Because languages are of crucial importance for the future of an entire institution, they should develop their own language plans or language policies, covering all programmes, portions of programmes and provision in the area of languages (Mackiewicz, 2003: 97).

We have an Institution-wide language scheme, UNIWIDE, through which a number of languages are offered as 20 credit modules which can be combined with any subject. In theory, students on any programme could learn a language at any level and students who begin a language in year one of their programme of study could potentially study a language for three or four years as part of their degree. This would enable them to benefit substantially from participating in an exchange programme as well as providing them with a valuable life skill and a useful addition to their CVs. The UNIWIDE language programme was benchmarked against the standards set by the Common European Framework in 2003. In other words, we are working to standards which are recognised throughout Europe and UNIWIDE students, on completion of a level, gain a certificate stating the level achieved. This, in itself, is a useful addition to their CV and a clear benefit in terms of their future employability. An external examiner for UNIWIDE recently pointed out that, ‘acquiring or enhancing foreign language skills is a demonstrably important factor in graduate employability, and the university should be doing all it can to allow students to add to their portfolio of skills in this area. The IWLP (UNIWIDE) programme adds considerable value to the MMU learning experience. If correctly supported, the programme could itself be an important recruitment and marketing tool for the university as a whole’12.


Student choice

Unfortunately, however, many programmes at MMU do not provide elective slots through the university CATS scheme thus denying their students the possibility of opting to learn a language as part of their programme. In some cases, the rationale for not allowing electives onto a programme relates to the belief that students must focus exclusively on the core subject. Clearly, the depth of knowledge of the main subject is of paramount importance in terms of the quality of any programme but are we not in danger of denying our students the opportunity to broaden their skill base and, in so doing, closing our eyes to the increasingly global context in which our students will be expected to function post graduation? There is a reluctance among some programme teams to allow students to study a language at beginners or intermediate level on the grounds that it is inappropriate on an honours degree programme. Is it not the case that ICT and Study Skills are both compulsory components of honours degree programmes at MMU because of their importance to our students throughout their University career and beyond? There is a similar rationale for the study of languages at any level. It is a skill which equips our students for the contemporary world of work and postgraduate study in a multicultural and global context. Indeed, the logic of regarding languages as a key skill alongside ICT, literacy and numeracy has been considered at the highest levels within the government. The Nuffield Foundation proposed that, ‘Languages, by virtue of their direct contribution to economic competitiveness, intercultural tolerance and social cohesion, should have the status of a key skill alongside literacy, numeracy and ICT’(2000:8). The same report goes on to stipulate that, ‘A national development plan should be agreed for languages in higher education as a matter of urgency’ and it should, ‘ensure that all undergraduate degrees allow students to undertake language study alongside their main discipline’ (2000: 93).

It is within this context that we, as an institution of higher education, have an important role to play. We have a responsibility, acknowledged in the MMU Strategic Plan, to provide our students with the skills which will enable them to achieve their full potential within their studies and within the world of work. This should include the provision of the necessary linguistic skills to enable them to participate fully in the European Higher Educational Area and beyond through SOCRATES exchanges, ERASMUS MUNDUS arrangements and other similar programmes which, in turn, will improve their employment prospects. The opportunity for our students to be able to study a foreign language as part of an undergraduate programme is an important component in the delivery of all of these agendas.

It has been said that, ’Language competence and inter-cultural understanding are not optional extras, they are an essential part of being a citizen’ (Languages for all, 2002: 5) and this should be an important consideration when deciding whether or not to allow our students to have the opportunity to choose to study a language as an elective on their degree programme. In response to the results of surveys of undergraduate students across the university we now offer Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic in addition to Spanish, French, German and Italian on our Institution-wide-language scheme. Any programme leader who would like to discuss the possibility of enabling students on a particular programme to study a language through UNIWIDE is warmly encouraged to contact the coordinator or Laura Leonardo (l.leonardo@mmu.ac.uk), to discuss this further.

 

1 Many commentators observe that young people's job prospects will be enhanced over the course of a working life time by ability to speak a foreign language. This is apparent to those aspiring to become members of the professions, as multinational partnerships become commonplace, and to those seeking to work in the City of London, where lack of facility in languages has become a serious disadvantage. To any company with large scale overseas business, and particularly export business, applicants for a job who have a capability in language should be at a long-term advantage. Languages Review (2006:20)

2 British Academy Reports, February 2007

3 The British Academy believes that (...) there should be mandatory languages study at both primary school and GCSE level. In addition, action is required at higher education level. Onora O'Neill said: "A language qualification should be a requirement for university entry, as is the case in many European countries. Universities should integrate languages into all degrees - a recommendation from the Nuffield Languages inquiry in 2003 - so that languages learning becomes a key skill for all students." British Academy Reports, February 2007

4 Meikle, J ‘University students face language requirement', Special Reports in Educational Guardian, December 13th 2006

5 MMU Strategic Plan 2003-2010: An Interim Review, Vision, p 5.

6 MMU Framework for Career Management and Development. Submitted to Academic Board, 25 June 2003, p2.

7 Lecture on Languages and Work at Manchester University in which Vicki Treadell outlined her mission as Director of the North West branch of UK Trade and Investment, 12 January, 2005.

8 Young people from the UK are at a growing disadvantage in the recruitment market. ... Companies increasingly need personnel with technical or professional skills plus another language and often their only option is to recruit native speakers of other languages. Mobility of employment is in danger of becoming the preserve of people from other countries. The Nuffield Inquiry (2000: 6)

9 Clarke C. (2002) ‘starting young and learning for life: languages for all'. Department of Education and Skills, press release, 18 December, in Head, Jones, Kelly, Tinsley (2003: 106)

10 The Nuffield Languages Inquiry specifies that, 'A wide gulf exists between business language needs and education supply, a gulf which needs to be bridged if the UK is to satisfy the need for business to be globally competitive [...] Those who fail to communicate in any language other than English, or who rely on third parties (…) risk losing business.’ (2000:18)

11 Erasmus University Charter 12 External examiner’s report for Spanish (2004).

12 External examiner's report for Spanish (2004).

 

References

British Academy Reports, February 2007.

The Languages Review

Clark, C (2002): Starting Young and Learning for Life: Languages for All. Department for Education and Skills Press Release. Accessed January 2007

Dearing, R, King, L, Languages Review: Consultation Report, Department for Education and Skills, (2006). Accessed January 2007.

Department for Education and Skills (2002) Languages for All: Languages for Life. A Strategy for England. (Accessed January 2007).

Erasmus University charter. (Accessed Jan 2007).

European Commission (2006) (Accessed Jan 2007)

Footitt, H. The National Languages Strategy in Higher Education, Subject Centre for LLAS, 2005.

Head D, Jones, E, Kelly M, Tinsley T, Setting the Agenda for Languages in Higher Education , CILT, 2003

Mackiewizc, W, ‘Language policy at European level’, in David Head, Elspeth Jones, Michael Kelly and Teresa Tinsley (eds), Setting the agenda for Languages in Higher Education, CILT, London 2003, 89-100, page 97.

Meikle, J, ‘University students face language requirement’, Educational Guardian, December 13th 2006.

MMU Framework for Career Management and Development. Submitted to Academic Board, 25 June 2003, p2.

MMU Strategic Plan 2003-2010: An Interim Review, Vision, p 5.

The Nuffield Foundation (2000) Languages: the next generation. The final report and recommendations of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry.

 


About the Author

 

Sharon Handley
Department of Languages

e-mail: s.handley@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 3920

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